Pastor Joe Skogmo
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN
Epiphany 4 | 02.02.2020 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The Apostle Paul in his letter to his Corinthian congregation is claiming that God is no stranger to weakness and suffering.
I am going to repeat that: God is no stranger to weakness and suffering. That is Paul’s claim.
Perhaps that’s obvious or non-controversial to you all upon hearing it. All over the Bible we are consistently shown a God who shows weakness and suffers with the suffering. But even if that’s a claim we accept, it’s still a strange claim.
Stranger yet, for the Apostle Paul, that God suffers and shows weakness, is, finally, what makes God so powerful.
Suffering and power? Isn’t that a blatant oxymoron?
So, Paul’s claim has a strange logic. Furthermore, in Paul’s time, to make such a claim about God would have been considered ridiculous, if not offensive!
For instance, in the Greco-Roman world, gods were NEVER associated with weakness. Gods never experienced suffering. The thought of a god or divine being hurting or dying was ludicrous. The god of Plato and his peers would never experience pain or humiliation, and certainly not death—that’s what made them gods! What made them gods is that they were above the flesh, and here Paul is claiming that God’s power is that he became flesh.
This goes for other ancient empires, too. Think of Xerxes, of the Persian Empire, in the movie 300. There is a moment in the movie where Xerxes sheds blood, and at that moment the people began to doubt his divinity, his godliness, because suffering and weakness were considered ungodly.
On that note, I once had a wonderful conversation with a rabbi in Minneapolis where I asked him: “What is it that finally disqualifies Jesus as the Jewish messiah?…On what basis is that claim ruled out for you as Jewish theologian?” The rabbi responded respectfully and said, “For us, the Messiah wouldn’t have died, and Jesus died.”
So, my friends, what I am getting at is this: a suffering God is itself a conundrum for worldly logic. Yet that is the claim that the Apostle Paul is making about God, and then Paul takes it ever further and says that God’s suffering is the ultimate display of power – in Paul’s words, the ‘power and wisdom of God’ (v.18) is best known in ‘Christ crucified’—(v. 23), in death and weakness—(v. 25).
For Paul’s audience, from Greek philosophers to Jewish thinkers, his claims had to have sounded like nonsense! And, if we’re to be honest, Paul’s point that God’s weakness and death is the ultimate power of God kind of sounds like nonsense to us, too.
We don’t see suffering and weakness as power. We, wrongly, teach our kids that it’s not okay to cry or show weakness or vulnerability. We, wrongly, hide from people when we are hurt.
Or, think about the idols that you and I worship: they’re never associated with weakness or vulnerability—we worship the bank accounts of Wall Street, we romanticize political might and military power, we envy intellectual prowess, and fawn over the flawlessness of celebrities. The victory of Super Bowl Champions is far more celebrated than the humanness or vulnerability of those athletes. We remember Super Bowl Champions more than we do NFL Persons of the Year…right, Randy? 😉
This is all to say, we naturally worship dominance…not weakness.
So what is Paul saying? Why is the power of God displayed most in God’s willingness to experience weakness and death?
I think…because this means, ultimately, that we have a God who loves. We have a God who doesn’t tread over those who cry in their pain and grief, but rather we have God who comes beside and cries, too as his did with Mary, for instance, in the 11th chapter of John (v. 35). We have a God who loves us more than he loves our ideas of strength and power.
When we put it like that…is there anything more powerful? Is there anything more powerful that the Creator of the Universe forsaking strength in order to love?
Is there anything more powerful than a God who is willing to experience weakness, suffering, and the cross out of love?
Is there anything more powerful than is a God who wants so badly to be involved and connected to his creation, he is willing to experience the pain and weakness of being a human being?
The Apostle Paul’s claim is that there is nothing more powerful than this love.
And, there is nothing more loving than a God who chooses to suffer with us and for us. In fact, one theologian named Jürgen Moltmann, writes, “A god who is incapable of suffering,”…like those gods of Greco-Roman and Persian philosophy, like the gods of Wall Street and Hollywood, is ultimately a god who is incapable of loving fully—because it’s not really love if you can’t hurt with the people you love.
A god who cannot suffer is a god who cannot know what it is to be like human, what it is to experience pain, fear, and loss. And if a god cannot know those dark human moments, how could a god love us truly in those moments?
Thankfully, unlike those false gods, suffering and our God are not contradictions. From anger and frustration (Mt. 21:12), to anxiousness, stress, and fatigue (cf. Mk 3:9), to feeling powerless (6:5), to experiencing rejection (Mt 13:54-57), to experiencing betrayal (26:14), to being bullied, to going through raw physical pain, to even estrangement from family and parents, to death itself…God in Christ Jesus knows what it’s like.
And that means, my dear sisters and brothers, that we have a God who knows us truly, and loves us fully, a God who’s ‘been there’ and is with you ‘there now.’ In whatever pain and suffering you feel, you do not suffer alone.
In a world that constantly reveres and chooses cold ideas of power and might, God chooses vulnerability, suffering, and love—and, that, says Paul, is powerful.
And finally, as Christ’s people on earth, we, too, are called to such a ‘powerful’ love—to risk suffering and weakness in the name of life and love. It will appear foolish or weak when you stand up for the bullied kid in the classroom, or the loner and despised in the community, or the marginalized in society; it will appear foolish or weak when you choose mercy over revenge, compassion over strength, empathy over ridicule, and love over hate—but it will be Godly weakness, and Paul says, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25).